One of the major figures in contemporary American independent film, self-taught writer-director Richard Linklater made a huge impact with 1991's Slacker, a plotless but intellectually inquisitive look at a gallery of colorful young characters living in Austin, Texas. His follow-up, 1993's nostalgic '70s high-school comedy Dazed And Confused, was mishandled by its studio, but ultimately gained an enormous cult following on video. Linklater's propensity for day-in-the-life narratives surfaced again in 1995's lovely Before Sunrise, in which two young people meet on a train, and 1997's SubUrbia, an uncharacteristically dark and despairing melodrama based on Eric Bogosian's play. In 1998, Linklater made a surprising departure with the underrated major-studio project The Newton Boys. The medium-budgeted Western, which followed the exploits of a family of bank robbers, subtly subverted the genre with its gentle humor and emphasis on non-violence. This year, Linklater returns with two new projects: Set entirely in a nondescript Lansing hotel room, Tape is a tense and sharply orchestrated digital-video film about three old acquaintances (Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Robert Sean Leonard) revisiting painful moments from their past. The more ambitious Waking Life returns to Slacker's free-floating monologues, but enhances and deepens the experience by adding animation over his live-action sequences to produce a shimmering, hypnotically beautiful effect. Linklater recently talked to The Onion A.V. Club about filmmaking, actors, philosophy, the Dazed And Confused cult, and how life changed after Sept. 11.
The Onion: How did you originally conceive of Waking Life?
Richard Linklater: I conceived of it so long ago that it became a part of me before I was even interested in film, probably 20 years ago. It was just one of those ideas that was swimming around in my head. Then, when I saw the computer-animation software my buddy [Bob Sabiston] was working on, I thought, "Oh, that's the way that film could work."
O: Did the idea change significantly from your initial concept?
RL: The spirit of it did not, but I didn't start out with such a set idea about what it was going to be like. The film is so much about its own process. It unfolds, and you kind of accept it the way your own life unfolds. Things come at you, and you either incorporate them or you don't.
O: Why was animation important to the content of Waking Life?
RL: Oh, live-action wouldn't have worked at all. People would have thrown tomatoes at the screen. The animation, at least this particular method of animation, puts you at some other level of reality. The film takes you into the necessary unreality. Otherwise, the bluntness of that material wouldn't have been acceptable.
O: How did you get the idea, early on, that philosophy could be expressed so readily on film?
RL: Well, it can't. [Laughs.] It never had much room in cinema, which has always bugged me. Why can't cinema incorporate everything? Everything that you could think about in life, or experience, or be interested in, theoretically should be expressed or dealt with in cinema. But the way typical narratives are set up, there's no room for philosophy, because it's just digressive material. It's not advancing the plot, so there's no place for it. It's the kind of stuff you would cut out, and that you shouldn't have put in there to begin with. So it's fun to make a narrative that's centered on ideas. You can hitch the ideas onto the narrative, and they work in the context of the movie. On one level, none of this stuff has any place in film. But then on another, in my kind of cinema universe—which Waking Life is, in some fucked-up way, about—these ideas are real and worth exploring. I never bought all those rules about what a film is supposed to be.
O: Without heavy incidents, does it become difficult to structure the film and give it some sort of forward momentum? That sort of risk seems to scare people off.
RL: I think most filmmakers would be bored with it, just as I would be bored by making another kind of film that doesn't interest me. To make Waking Life work was really challenging, and had me interested enough to follow through. But when it's particular to you, that's the kind of film you should be making. It's like, "Oh, this will be a challenge for me to pull off, and the fact that I'm even attracted to trying to make it work means it's pretty close to me." I think it's the thematic threads, not so much plot points, which tie Waking Life together. The story emerges the same way it emerges with the lead character. It's a very analogous situation, the way the audience takes in the movie and the way you take in your own dreams and memories.
O: The film invites inevitable comparisons to Slacker. Where were you able to take this film instead?
RL: Waking Life has more of a story. Slacker had no story, pointedly
so. It was more like these situations that interconnect, but without any driving narrative force. Waking Life does have that force, but it enters into the movie through the side door. Slacker is about a certain disconnectedness, whereas Waking Life is, to me, much more about a connectedness in the world. They're very similar to me in the sense that they're both these personal-inventory movies that capture where my head was at that moment, like a snapshot of a particular time in my life. Ten years from now, who knows?
O: How has Austin changed since Slacker? Are those changes reflected in the movie?
RL: No, not really. Waking Life is not really set in Austin per se, though I filmed part of it there, and in New York and San Antonio. But it has no geographical setting. Slacker is the only movie I've done that's really set in Austin, and it's very much an Austin movie. We did use certain locations again, and they've changed significantly—like a big building where there used to be a house, for example. I suppose if you were from Austin, some of that might be kind of poignant, seeing how the city has changed.
O: What sort of control did you have over the animation?
RL: Just as much as I needed. [Laughs.] I think it's called "director veto power." You can go, "No, take out the comment that knocks off the guy's head, but leave this…" My job was to reel in the animators, who are all very creative, but the work is so time-consuming, I think they would get bored and start throwing shit in. And there are a lot of hidden things in the movie that Bob and I are still picking up on. Like, "Look what's in that corner," or "Look what they named that hotel," or "Look at the fish tank, see what's going on there." That was always my litmus test. If the animators could hide something so secretly that I could watch it numerous times, both on the computer and on the screen, and not pick up on it, then it deserves to be in the movie. But if they had more overt things, I'd often tell them to cut it out. In general, as long as they captured the spirit of the character, then they're fine. But sometimes it took a while, and we had to replace a lot of animators.
O: What are your feelings about how digital video is used now, and how it might be used in the future?
RL: My other film, Tape, was much more of a digital film. Waking Life, we captured digitally, but we could have shot it on anything, because the film is ultimately in the computer. But about DV, I'm mixed. I'm enthusiastic about technology and its possibilities, but DV has a lot of problems, particularly in post-production. It's difficult getting it transferred to film. Tape, I got out by the skin of my teeth, just because that's the way it probably should look. But I don't think everything should be shot digitally. Ultimately, I'm not that excited about it. As it evolves, that next step will be neat, like when the personal-model 24P cameras become available to consumers. Until then, we're sort of swimming around with these barely usable technologies. They're just tools, which is why I don't think about it all that much. I've made eight films on Super8, 16mm, 35mm, 35 Cinemascope, animated, digital… None of that shit matters. It's your ideas that count. We should all be excited about cinema in general, still. It's a new art form, only 105 years old. Look at the possibilities. We're still just scraping the surface.
O: It seems to me that the problem with digital video is that the quality of the images has suddenly become negligible.
RL: That's one of the problems I have with it. I don't think all films should necessarily look like they do on digital video. I think it cheats the audience, at some point. If you try to make an epic and you shoot it digitally, that doesn't make much sense. I think there's a certain kind of film that could be a "digital film." But it shouldn't be interchangeable with other films. It should be something more than just a capture medium. It should be a different form altogether, something new. But I
think we're still stuck in old forms, so most digital films just mean they had a low budget and couldn't shoot on film, because the content isn't any different from what you'd usually see on film. Everything from the way it's shot to the way it's edited to the way it's lit… If everything about it is a film except that it was shot on video, then what's the point, other than economics? That's fine to make it cheaper, but then it's just an economic tool, which makes it really uninteresting.
O: What have you learned from your experiences working within the studio system?
RL: I've always been in and out of the studio system. Dazed And Confused was made for Universal, Before Sunrise and SubUrbia were made for Castle Rock… All I've learned is that you need the studio system sometimes, if your budget is a certain size, and other films you can do independently. When I think of a studio, I generally think of distribution. Since I'm a director, I have a similar creative experience on every film I do, because I can control that. But then it's a different film, I think, as it reaches the public, depending on the way it's marketed. I don't know. I haven't learned much of anything. Sometimes you need them, sometimes you don't. Sometimes they want you, most of the time they don't. [Laughs.]
O: What's the most trouble you've had getting a film made?
RL: Well, I have a lot of films that I haven't gotten made, and that continues to trouble me. But someday, some way or another, I think I will. It's all about timing. There's a moment when you're hot and studios will make your next film, and then there's a moment when you're really cold, and they couldn't care less what you want to do next. That's when you have to recede and make lower-budgeted films. These last two films of mine are real low-budget, and that's just the reality of it. I couldn't, say, get that $8 million I needed to get one project off the ground, so you move on to something else. And that's okay, too. You can look at it two different ways. You can say, "Cool, I'm given the freedom to make a film like Waking Life," or "Ooh, my career sucks, and I can't get money to make bigger films, and I'm doing it poor like I just got out of film school." You can either feel sorry for yourself and think you're on a failure track, or you could go, "Hey, this is great. It's freedom, and I'm getting to express myself." I've had waves of both feelings, but for the most part, I'm really happy to be able to do things at this level at all. You're kind of trained to be a little dissatisfied with where you're at, but it keeps you striving for something more. All I want to do is get the next film made, and the one after that. Now, if only everyone would adhere to my schedule… [Laughs.]
O: What's your approach to directing actors?
RL: Wow, that's one of those big, difficult questions. On a superficial level, you're just trying to set up an arena where they can do their best work, and encourage them, and see where your ideas mix with theirs as far as the character is concerned. I think casting is really important. Finding the right sensibility for the right part is an art in itself. If you're off there, you make it harder on yourself as a director. There are certain characters that are more difficult to play than others, but that's why they're interesting sometimes. And it's fun to work that out with the actors. I don't think there's any magic to directing actors. It's very instinctual. Working with actors is really one of my favorite creative moments of the whole process, and the most fun, because it's collaborative. I spend a lot of time rehearsing. I don't know how they do it, but some directors want a fresh situation, where the actors just show up on the set and they start shooting. I don't know how that could work. I'm very rehearsal-oriented, probably because I have some background in theater. I like knowing what will work beforehand.
O: Is rehearsal also necessitated in part by budget constraints?
RL: No, I just think it's a necessary process. Are you saying that if you had more money and time, you could just rehearse it on-set?
O: Something like that.
RL: I know a lot of people approach it that way. But I'm interested in planting a seed three weeks before we're shooting a scene, not that day, so actors can wake up in the morning with an idea and have it grow. I like the actors to have time to think thoroughly about what they're doing. They're not my puppets who I'm manipulating into performances, and I know exactly what I want. I like to throw out ideas, and maybe cumulatively, we can all take it to some new level that we didn't imagine. To me, the most wonderful moment is when the material is going through the actors and they're giving it a form: Ideas, concepts, words are becoming real through them. That's the crucial moment for me.
O: So there's something open-ended about the way you end up making movies?
RL: I think so. It's very process-oriented. I just want to get into them. I've had many good scenes on paper that never ended up in the finished film, because it didn't work through the actors. And that's either my fault, or it's miscasting, or the idea just wasn't organic enough to fit into the movie. You just have to have your antennae out there to figure out what's working and what isn't. I think in filmmaking, you really have to have a Plan B, C, D… You have to be able to turn on a dime when something's not working. If you're too set in your mind about what it is, all the forces in the universe are going to work against you getting that exact thing. In one way, you know exactly what you don't want, and you know what you're going for, but maybe you don't know you're there until you reach the destination. People maybe think you're indecisive if you're not like [Stanley] Kubrick, shooting 80 takes. It may sound like you're just wanking off or something. In [Kubrick's] own way, that's his method of getting what he wants. I would just sit around and talk about it for four hours, and rehearse it, because I don't have that kind of time and money on the set. But I'm always trying to go to some new level with the material, and that's the way I go about it.
O: What do you make of the cult that's grown around Dazed And Confused? Is there any discord between the way you see the film and the way its fans look at it?
RL: Oh, I just kind of smile. What is that cult? I think people get stoned and watch it, don't they? Like if they're having a house party, it's just sort of on in the background somewhere. I think that's just because the people in the film seem so familiar that it's like going back to high school and hanging out with people you like. So that's nice.
O: But do you think there's a melancholy aspect to the film that people aren't necessarily picking up on?
RL: Oh, yeah. When I was making it, I was horrified, because I was reliving my past point-by-point. I'd be on the set and I'd look around, and I would be back in 1976, a freshman in high school again. And those weren't necessarily good memories. [Laughs.] I was revisiting sorrows and horrors. I was making it from a distance, so it perhaps came out more positive than negative, but it's not all fun and games. Maybe the people who like it respond to the realism of that, that it goes into more melancholic territories without rubbing it in your face. It's not like one of those dramas where the kid gets killed in the car wreck at the end. You just float through a day in high school, and it's horror at the locker, infatuation, parties… All those things, so it's more encompassing of that experience. It's another film where I'm amazed it got made. There's no real story, just these guys hanging out.
O: In light of Dazed And Confused, how would you respond to the criticism that your sensibility seemed very much at odds with Eric Bogosian's in SubUrbia?
RL: I don't know. I felt very close to those characters. I think, on the surface, Bogosian and I would look like we're very different, but I don't think so. In my mind, it's almost like a sequel to Dazed, like those same characters five years later. Things have curdled a bit, because 21 or 22 is very different from 14 or 17.
O: Have you thought about how the events of Sept. 11 might change the way you make movies?
RL: I don't think so. I'm not working on any terrorist scripts or anything.
O: I didn't mean quite so specifically.
RL: Oh, like in the culture? I don't know. It's such a big thing to process. It's hard to make a general assumption. It feels like we're experiencing the emergence of real human connection in the culture right now. Like that John Lennon special on TV… I just find myself very moved by things right now. I feel a connectedness that I don't think is always out there in the culture. It takes an event like that, sometimes, to jolt you into seeing what's important. I think people can maybe better appreciate certain human moments, and their relations, and their connections to others. It takes a tragedy, sometimes, to jostle
us out of our own little world and our own little ambitions and cravings and material desires.
O: Your films so often feature protagonists who are trying to find their place in the world, and it seems like something of this magnitude could snap things into focus.
RL: Yeah. I guess I was just always one of those guys who asked those fundamental questions: "Who am I? What's this for? Why? What does this mean? Is this real?" All these pretty basic questions. I like making movies about people who are self-conscious in that way, and are trying to feel their way through the world. I admire people who can just brazenly go through the world. The Newton Boys was the one time I've made a film with really active characters who weren't at all self-reflexive, and just plowed through their lives. There's a part of everyone that's like that. We have a biological imperative to keep living, keep moving forward… We have no choice. That's the disconnected part of ourselves. But I think on another level, we have a much bigger striving to expand our consciousness, in a way. There's a tension there, always, between mind and body, and we all find our own little groove between the two. The real world and the world in your brain can be at odds with one another.
O: Is it possible that a positive aspect of this tragedy might be that Americans have a better sense of connection with the world?
RL: I would like to think it's Americans connecting to the world, and not just America wrapping itself in a flag, ready to take on the world. You're right, I think that's the best possible aspect of it. On a political level, the American government has had to reach out to the rest of the world and see what we agree on, so they're looking for connectedness. It's unfortunate sometimes that the world emphasizes differences, and that that's what we look for. We rarely emphasize similarities and connectedness, because that sort of goes without saying. We emphasize negativity and violence in the media because that's what grabs everybody's attention, but in the real world, it's mostly people being very cooperative and caring and connected and kind. That's the norm of human experience. And yet, what gets our attention is the very opposite. It's at a moment like now that we realize that people are capable of incredible empathy. I mean, there are still psychopaths out there, but they're in the minority. [Laughs.]